There is a willful awkwardness to So Much Light’s brand of skewed pop music. In passing, there’s a lot that So Much Light has in common with top-40 radio throughout latest album Oh, Yuck — sparse beats, sugary hooks, and a hyper-flexible vocal register that recalls some of the Weeknd’s more restrained moments — but it’s hard to see Damien Verrett’s pop vision breaking through to the mainstream.
Perhaps the most overt of Verrett’s idiosyncrasies is his lyrical content. Simultaneously hyper-current and almost embarrassingly frank, Verrett sings of relationships and feelings through a lens of anecdotal specificity, using individual incidents to illustrate larger concepts. There aren’t many pop artists who would be willing to sell a chorus of “Searching all over creation / Sweeten the deal / Saccharine and masturbation” in a song about the love life of a musician, but Verrett specializes in confessional self-doubt far more readily than he engages in self-aggrandizement. “Starting to form an idea but I don’t know what I said to make that sweet girl disappear,” he sings in the excellent “Full Body Mirror,” and you start to get an idea of his experience in relationships. By the time he gets to “Flagship” and sings lines like “Sheer, like here but not quite here / All twisted in the gears / white sails,” it’s clear that he’s gravitating toward the depressed and lonely end of the pop spectrum.
That said, his music never comes off as though he’s wallowing. There’s bounce in here; there’s life in the beats and melodies. He’s warning a potential paramour in the single “Be Afraid”: “I’m a monster / ever had one? / Be afraid,” he sings, but the 3-3-2 pattern of the keyboards and the sparse beats give the song a groove that might not sound that out of place on pop radio. Verrett’s vocals are perfect here, his melodies rising on the questions and settling down on the responses. It’s an approach that wouldn’t sound completely out of place on pop radio, except that its insecurities might hit a little too close to home for many listeners.
Tracks that fly parallel to pop radio are pretty common throughout Oh, Yuck. “Full Body Mirror” is an immediately catchy ditty about self-absorption whose flutes and quickly-strummed staccato guitars recall Vampire Weekend until the beat shows up and it all turns into a twinkly synth workout in the chorus. “Summoner” is slow and deliberate in the way that Frank Ocean has turned into something of a calling card. Closer “Let It Absorb You” is an exquisite and purposeful ’80s throwback — just get a load of that easy-rock guitar solo that plays the song out — and its lyrical conceit is the well-worn but always welcome theme of “stop thinking so hard and follow your heart”. It’s an excellent way to finish.
While much of the material is strong, however, Verrett’s unwillingness to sing at a volume much higher than a restrained whisper does seem like a missed opportunity, and nothing here exceeds mid-tempo, with many of the deeper cuts coming off as soupy, disposable intermissions. It’s hard to find the wonderfully acerbic lyric of “Idiot Soul” underneath the slow tempo and synth-heavy production that comes off as both sparse and distracting, for instance. “Deep Down” is an interesting idea more than it is a song, its monotone, multi-tracked vocals on the verses a chore to get through, its chorus not enough of a payoff.
The insistence of Verrett to maintain his integrity on an album that could so easily succumb to cookie-cutter pop pastiche is admirable, but these are moments and songs that could have been edited out of the final product. Most of the album’s appeal, after all, is in wrapping ugly thoughts and emotions in a surprisingly appealing package. Oh, Yuck is better than its hilariously self-deprecating title, but it is, as a result of these largely extraneous moments and songs, less than the sum of its parts. There is greatness to be found, but Oh, Yuck is not quite a great album.